Whenever conservatives get caught with their hands in the till they shout, “Class Warfare!” at those of us who would like to stop their looting. Thinking this a negative, they forget, I guess, that the American democratic experiment was and is just that: a class war.

It has always been about equality vs. aristocracy. It was in the beginning, is now, and will always be. No one has described the class war and the American spirit of equality as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood. He recognized equality as America’s home-grown radical philosophy.

Wood wrote:

As early as the 1780s the principal antagonists in the society were no longer patriots vs. courtiers but had become democrats v. aristocrats.

Today’s political and cultural antagonists – progressives vs. conservatives, OWS versus Wall Street – are engaged in the very same battle. It’s muddied up a bit by the agitations of a populist Right, people charmed by hierarchy and the aristocracy’s slight-of-hand into believing their real enemies were those beside them and not the Machiavels above them. But propaganda’s tissue-thin; the reality it presumes to wrap is always visible beneath it – for those who look.

By any measure – political power, income distribution, educational opportunity, access to health care – it’s frighteningly clear that aristocratic anti-egalitarians have been winning. As the suffering caused by their anti-democratic movement becomes more widespread and widely seen, however, they grow ever more nervous. It’s not Wall Street we occupy so much as the fevered nightmares of an  embattled elite. They wave their wands still, but the magic deserts them.

We have sometimes lost track of the egalitarian origins of American democracy, persuaded by the myth (bolstered by the Framers’ failures on slavery and universal suffrage) that “the American revolution was sober and conservative while the French Revolution was chaotic and radical,” as Wood notes. He continues:

But only if we measure radicalism by violence and bloodshed can the myth be sustained; by any other measure the American Revolution was radical – and most of the Federalists knew it.

And the most radical thing about it was the empathy-based recognition of our common humanity. Its shapers recognized that humans really are created equal. They sought to build our cultural, political and economic environments in ways that recognize that equality and provide opportunity for all to live free and flourish.

Today’s aristocratic conservative movement wants to rewrite that history and have us believe America’s was a Dog-Eat-Dog Constitution. Theirs has always been a “look-over-there” strategy as the aristocrats point to foreign immigrants, or former slaves, or communists, or socialists, or street thugs, or Hollywood, or whatever. Then, when we turn to see where they’re pointing, they pick our pockets.

The OWS movement (and other new initiatives like Cenk Uygur’s Wolf Pac or the We the People movement) are just the latest to take up an American battle that began in the late 18th Century. Conservative pundits can hurl accusations of “class warfare” all they want. It may be the only true thing they’ve argued in years.

As I noted, nobody gets this history better than Wood. Everyone engaged in today’s battles should read the chapter “Equality” in his book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Here are some additional quotes from the book. They can help counter the Right’s efforts to somehow make equality, the very soul of American democracy, seem un-American.

Nothing contributed more to this [democratic] explosion of energy than did the idea of equality. Equality was in fact the most radical and most powerful ideological force let loose in the Revolution.

[Equality] became what Herman Melville called ‘the great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy!’

Indeed, if equality had meant only equality of opportunity or a rough equality of property-holding, it could never have become, as it has, the single most powerful and radical ideological force in all of American history. Equality became so potent for Americans because it came to mean that everyone was really the same as everyone else, not just at birth, not in talent or property or wealth, and not just in some transcendental religious sense of equality of all souls. Ordinary Americans came to believe that no one in a basic down-to-earth and day-in-and-day-out manner was really better than anyone else. That was equality as no other nation has ever quite had it.

It was this commonality that linked people together in natural affection and made it possible for them to share each other’s feelings. There was something in each human being – some sort of moral sense or sympathetic instinct – that made possible natural compassion and affection and that bound everyone together in a common humanity.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith